Max Lamb: Furniture on the Beach

Max Lamb: Furniture on the Beach

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Max Lamb demonstrates his process for making his Pewter Stool by pouring molten metal into the sand. Photos/Max Lamb and Jane Lamb

“My work is not about keeping secrets,” says Max Lamb, who delivers his furniture using one or two tools and makes videos of his methods.

Max Lamb makes one-offs. In an industry dominated by bargain-hunting, high-volume production, this 27-year-old British furniture designer delivers his products using one or two tools, one or two materials and a video camera.

Alongside several of his seats on display at the Design Museum in London last fall, a time-lapse movie showed Lamb digging holes in the sand on a beach in Cornwall, his home county. Next to him, in a huge cauldron on a camping stove, a silver liquid bubbled. Its thick look and languid pace made it seem strangely cold; in fact it was molten pewter, which he then poured into the holes he'd made in the sand. A little while later he started digging under and around the solidified pewter and excavated a three-legged stool.

"My work is not about keeping secrets," he says, showing a visitor around his studio in the Tottenham district of London.Picking up one of the stools, he examines the rough surface of its legs, granulated by beach sand, a contrast to the shiny seating surface, cooled in the seaside air. "I want people to see every detail of how it was made, and understand the material."

Apart from ingots of pewter, a camping stove, his mother's old pots and a metal stick for sculpting, his tool on the beach was a feeling of irritation. "I'd been to a couple of foundries-incredible places-and looked at the sand-casting process. I really wanted to do something there. It was a reaction to being unable to afford those processes-going to them and having them laugh at me, saying I'd have to make thousands for them to even consider the job. But then I thought, I'm from Cornwall, I've made sandcastles," he says, obstinately.

"I don't make a lot of sketches. The form comes from what the process makes necessary," he adds. When the tide goes out, beach sand is perfect for sculpting, but as the tide comes in, the subterranean water table rises invisibly; the rising water, slightly hard to predict, can shorten the one or more pewter legs when he pours the liquid metal after digging. So, employing a wise old principle, "three points of contact won't wobble," he gives the stool only three legs.

Lamb's career as a furniture designer spans less than five years-he's a recent graduate of the Royal College of Art-and so far his opus consists mostly of seats, which he names after their material: Copper Stool, Starch Chair, Sheet Steel Chair, Poly Chair. The last is made from standard-size rectangular hunks of polystyrene, from which Lamb subtracts, sculpting with the back of a hammer for about half an hour.

"It's a primitive way of making furniture," he admits, but then rattles off facts about the polystyrene with a high-tech brain. "It's pre-foamed material, so they start off with tiny beads of styrene, put them through a machine that steams them and they expand. But the material is 98 percent air and only 2 percent plastic-so the plastic per volume is small, great for a product with longevity, bad for one that's supposed to be disposable."

To make the Poly Chair last generations rather than cause an artificial snowstorm every time people run their fingers over its armrest, Lamb coated it with a polyurethane rubber that he says is bomb-proof; "Two thirds of the Pentagon is covered in this," he explains, pointing at the jet-black glossy puckered surface of a shallow-scooped easy chair, "it's UV-proof and indestructible."

When asked what would happen if, for example, everyone in Cornwall started casting pewter on the beach, or everyone in the industrial outskirts of London found suppliers of block polystyrene and scraped out seats, Lamb couldn't care less. After all, he has actually published how-to instructions in his videos.

This, in fact, is the point. We live in an age where people need to look at the objects they live with and use without fearing to peek under the proverbial hood, or hesitating to bring molten pewter to the beach.